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REVIEW: THE FOLK KEEPER by Franny Billingsley

Monday, December 21, 2015

Whenever anyone recommends a book to me that I haven’t read, I write it in the back of my diary and then I hunt the book down. The Folk Keeper was recommended to me by an artist friend, who shares my fascination with selkies and other magical creatures of the sea.


She is never cold, she always knows exactly what time it is, and her hair grows two inches while she sleeps. Fifteen-year-old Corinna Stonewall--the only Folk Keeper in the city of Rhysbridge--sits hour after hour with the Folk in the dark, chilly cellar, "drawing off their anger as a lightning rod draws off lightning." The Folk are the fierce, wet-mouthed, cave-dwelling gremlins who sour milk, rot cabbage, and make farm animals sick. Still, they are no match for the steely, hard-hearted, vengeful orphan Corinna who prides herself in her job of feeding, distracting, and otherwise pacifying these furious, ravenous creatures. The Folk Keeper has power and independence, and that's the way she likes it.

One day, Corinna is summoned by Lord Merton to come to the vast seaside estate Cliffsend as Folk Keeper and family member--for she is the once-abandoned child he has been looking for. It is at Cliffsend that Corinna learns where her unusual powers come from, why she is drawn to the sea, and finally, what it means to be comfortable in her own skin. Written in the form of a journal, The Folk Keeper is a powerful story of a proud, ferociously self-reliant girl who breaks out of her dark, cold, narrow world into one of joy, understanding, and even the magic of romance.


 The Folk Keeper is one of those small, perfect books that seem so simple and yet are so hard to create. The first line reads: ‘It is a day of yellow fog, and the Folk are hungry.’ It tells the story of a boy who works as a Folk Keeper in an orphanage, keeping the magical Folk appeased so they will not do harm to the human world. One day a Great Lady arrives, and so the boy’s life is changed forever. He discovers many secrets about himself and his past, uncovers a long-hidden murder and faces death himself, and – in the end – falls in love. Franny Billingsley won the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award for Fiction with this beautiful children’s fantasy and it is easy to see why. An utterly unforgettable read. 


SPOTLIGHT: The history & meaning of 'Beauty & the Beast'

Sunday, November 15, 2015

"Beauty & the Beast" is one of the world’s most beloved fairy tales. It is also thought to be one of the oldest. It has its roots in a story called ‘Cupid & Psyche’ which was included in the collection of stories known as Metamorphoses, written in the 2nd century AD by Apuleius. That is more than two thousand years ago ... and there are more than one thousand different variants of this tale, in cultures all over the world. 

In many versions, the monstrous bridegroom is a serpent. In the Norwegian version ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’, he is a bear. In the Grimm brothers’ version, ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’, he is a lion, and in the English variant, he is a dog. 

* ‘Cupid & Psyche’-type tales usually feature three sisters. The youngest is the most beautiful. She must marry (or live with) a monster, beast, or animal, usually as penance for some kind of theft or misbehavior. In ‘Cupid & Psyche’, she was so beautiful that people began to worship her instead of Venus. In ‘Beauty & the Beast’, her father steals a rose. In ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’, the father tries to catch the beast’s pet lark. 

* The Beast comes to her bed at night in the form of a man, but she must not see him.

* The Beauty betrays the Beast somehow. In ‘Cupid & Psyche’ and ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’, her dangerous curiosity leads her to light a lamp so she can see who her bridegroom is. In ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’, she allows light to fall upon him. 

* He is revealed to be a beautiful man - a prince or a god. But since she has seen him, and was forbidden not to, he must leave. In ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’, he is transformed into a dove.

She searches for him, sometimes having to complete many difficult tasks in order to find him. Her journey is to the underworld and back, seeking redemption.

In 1740, a French writer called Madame Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve took the well-known ‘Animal Bridegroom’ tale and rewrote it as ‘The Story of the Beauty & the Beast’. Being over 100 pages long, this is the first time a fairy tale was retold in novel form. Villeneuve’s version was dark, complex, and sensual. In her tale, the danger is very real – the Beast is fierce and wild, and must be tamed by the girl. As Terri Windling has written ‘(in Villeneuve’s story) the Beast is a truly fiercesome figure, not a gentle soul disguised by fur … The emphasis of this tale is on the transformation of the Beast, who must find his way back to the human sphere.’ 

Sixteen years later Mademoiselle Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, a French woman working as a governess in England, took Villeneuve's story and cut it to the bone, removing much of the latent eroticism and complex back-story. She published her simpler version in a magazine for young ladies. In Beaumont’s story, the monstrous shape of the Beast is a kind of furry costume that he wears, hiding the good and noble man within. 

The story was therefore no longer about the Beast's need for transformation, but instead focuses on the heroine’s need to learn to look beneath the surface. So Beaumont’s story is closer to the original ‘Cupid & Psyche’ tale, in which the heroine must undergo a series of trials and tests before she is worthy of her divine lover.

Beaumont’s version of the tale has now been retold so many times it has its own sub-category in the folkloric classification system – Tale Type 425C ‘Beauty & the Beast’. 

The Meaning of the Tale

As always, there are multiple interpretations of the meaning of the story. As P.L. Travers said, ‘we go to fairy tales not so much for their meanings as for our meanings.’ (quoted in The Meanings of "Beauty and the Beast": A Handbook, by Jerry Griswold.)

Bruno Bettelheim looks at the symbols of the tale. For him, the stolen rose is indicative of the ‘broken flower’ of maidenhood, and so anticipates the loss of her virginity. This would make ‘Beauty and the Beast’ a story of sexual awakening, as so many fairy tales are. For Bettelheim, who was a Freudian psychoanalyst, the story is therefore one of oedipal conflict – the daughter must grow away from her childish love of her father and into a more mature love of her husband. 

Steven Swann Jones believes fairy tales are ‘symbolic depictions of social and emotional crises faced by audience members … (‘Beauty & the Beast’-type tales) dramatize the central and apparently problematic experience of coming to terms with marriage.’ 

Old school feminists might argue that – by trying to please her father by marrying the Beast - Beauty is locked into a female-reductive patriarchal society. 

However, newer feminist readings of the tale look back to its mythic roots. Psyche means the vital breath, or breath of life, and so stands for the human soul. Psyche, the heroine of the old tale, has to undergo a long journey down into the dark terror of the underworld and back up into the light, a journey of transformation, redemption and rebirth. 

This mythic reading of the ‘Beauty & the Beast’ tale fills it power. It is the story of a woman’s journey towards true knowledge of her secret lover, and indeed of the nature of love itself (remember that a rose is often a symbol of secrets). 

Marina Warner has written: ‘The Beauty & the Beast story is a classic fairy tale of transformation, which, when told by a woman, places the male lover, the Beast, in the position of the mysterious, threatening, possibly fatal unknown, and beauty, the heroine, as the questor who discovers his true nature …by the end of the tale …. The terror has been faced and chased; the light shines in the dark places.’ 

You may also enjoy reading some of my other blogs on fairy tales:


REVIEW: Holloway by Robert McFarlane

Friday, November 06, 2015

by Robert Macfarlane, Dan Richards, Stanley Donwood (Illustrations)

The Blurb:
Holloway - a hollow way, a sunken path. A route that centuries of foot-fall, hoof-hit, wheel-roll and rain-run have harrowed deep down into bedrock.

In July 2005, Robert Macfarlane and Roger Deakin travelled to explore the holloways of South Dorset's sandstone. They found their way into a landscape of shadows, spectres & great strangeness.

Six years later, after Deakin's early death, Macfarlane returned to the holloway with the artist Stanley Donwood and writer Dan Richards. The book is about those journeys and that landscape.

My Thoughts:

It is difficult to know how to describe this exquisite little book. It is only 33 pages long, and some of those pages are filled with delicate black-and-white drawings of trees. It’s a memoir of a camping trip inspired by a book I’ve never heard of, it’s a extended poem about the sunken holloways of Dorset – those deep, mysterious tunnels between tree-roots that were once roads, goat-tracks, and field-paths – and it's a celebration of nature, friendship, and language. I’ve read it three times now, and find new delights each time. It was so beautiful, so marvellous, I have gone and bought several more of Robert Macfarlane’s books since, hoping for more enchantment.


BOOK REVIEW: Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis

Friday, September 19, 2014

Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C.S. Lewis

When I was a little girl, I spent many a long summer holiday with my great-aunts in the seaside town of Merewether, about an hour's drive north of my home town of Sydney.

I remember one year, when I was about twelve, lying on the floor in their living-room and looking through the bookshelves in search of something to read. My eye fell upon a novel called Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C.S. Lewis, and I grabbed it eagerly. I loved the Narnia books - they were my all-time favourite books - and so I confidently expected I would love this book too.

The very first line both startled me and intrigued me:

I am old now and have not much to fear from the anger of gods.

It was clear at once this was not going to be a tale set in the magical, funny, wondrous world of Narnia, but something much darker and more grown-up. With a little shiver of anticipation, I lay down behind my great-aunt's green velvet wing-chair and gave myself over to the story, the first adult book I ever read.

Till We Have Faces was Lewis's last book, published in 1956, the year that he married Joy Davidman, the American poet and writer whose tragic death in 1960 was immortalized in the movie Shadowlands with Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger. It is believed that Joy inspired Orual, the central character in Till We Have Faces.

The book is a retelling of the ancient Greek myth of 'Cupid and Psyche'. I was not familiar with the myth when I read the book, but understood it easily, possibly because of the strong echoes the story has with that of the Beauty and the Beast fairytale.

In brief, the myth tells the story of Psyche, who wed Cupid, the God of Love; he gave her everything a woman could want except the sight of his own face. Her jealous elder sisters convinced her to take a candle and shine it upon her husband's face while he slept. Psyche did so, but a drop of hot wax fell on Cupid's face and woke him. Angry and disappointed, he cast her out and she had to undertake a set of seemingly impossible tasks before she could win him back.

Lewis said that the Cupid and Psyche myth had haunted him all his life. He tried to write it in poetic form, and as a play, before at last writing it from the point of view of the jealous older sister, Orual.

Originally the manuscript was titled Bareface, with an interplay of multiple meanings: Orual's facial deformity, which she hides with a mask; Psyche's mortal beauty; and the invisible gods Cupid and Aphrodite, who are supposedly the most beautiful of all. However, Lewis's editor rejected this title, thinking it sounded like a Western, and so Lewis re-named it after a line from the book in which Orual says, 'How can [the gods] meet us face to face till we have faces?'

When I first read this book, at the age of twelve, I don't think I understood what C.S. Lewis meant by this line. I do know that when I read it – and recognized it as the title and so having some kind of special significance – it stirred all sorts of new thoughts and feelings in me. I dimly realized that Orual could only grasp the truth about the gods – and so understand the meaning of the universe – once she had realized the truth about herself.

Here is the whole quote:

Lightly men talk of saying what they mean... When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the centre of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you'll not talk about joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak openly, nor let us answer. Till that need can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?

I was puzzled and moved and enthralled by this passage, and bookmarked it in my great-aunt's book with a frangipani flower that had fallen from the tree in their garden. That flower, now brown and withered and without fragrance, still marks the page.

With this book, C.S Lewis somehow taught me that stories can contain in them some kind of truth that cannot always be easily expressed, or understood with the intellect alone. He also gave me a deep and abiding love of stories that retell older stories, and find new truths hidden within the old.

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